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Biblical Literalism, Secularism And American Politics

The atrophying of our national understanding of secularism has dramatic implications for the country's well-being, including, most fundamentally, its ability to separate politics from religion.
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In his recent "Newsweek" cover story, "Christianity in Crisis," Andrew Sullivan gave at least three reasons for the crisis he sees afflicting American Christianity:

Many suburban evangelicals embrace a gospel of prosperity, which teaches that living a Christian life will make you successful and rich. Others defend a rigid biblical literalism, adamantly wishing away a century and a half of scholarship that has clearly shown that the canonized Gospels were written decades after Jesus' ministry, and are copies of copies of stories told by those with fallible memory. Still others insist that the earth is merely 6,000 years old -- something we now know by the light of reason and science is simply untrue.

One needn't agree with Sullivan's devout conclusion, that we should "follow Jesus but forget the Church," to feel concern about how such troubling perspectives weigh on American society and politics. While biblical literalism is integral to evangelical faith, given its belief in the supposed purity of the biblical Word, evangelicals (as the recent wave of support for Rick Santorum attests) have put an indelible stamp on the choice and direction of countless positions in the Republican primary, from economic policy and taxation to healthcare and even access to birth control.

In the previous Presidential campaign, literalism -- evangelical and otherwise -- played an outsized role that could well return this summer. Remember James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, criticizing then candidate Obama in June 2008 for distorting the Bible and adopting a "fruitcake interpretation" of the U.S. Constitution? His comment stemmed from Obama's earlier insistence, in response to an audience member's question, that it would be "impractical" to govern solely from the word of the Bible. Unlawful, too, given our Constitution.

"Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy?" Obama went on to ask appropriately. "Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is an abomination? Or we could go with Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith, or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount?"

"Before we get carried away," he advised, "let's read our Bible" -- as worshippers and readers, that is, who recognize, but don't sanction, the ancient allusions to slavery and the stoning of unruly children and adulterous women.

Those tempted to dismiss Dobson's attack on Obama ignore the resentment that built among evangelicals over Obama's reasonable reply. They are also likely overlooking literalism's continued attraction to millions of Americans drawn to the black and white answers it seems to promise them. According to Chip Berlet of the non-partisan Political Research Associates, fully 30 percent to 40 percent of U.S. population believes in the End Times. This time last year, if it was possible to forget, vast amounts of media energy, in this country as elsewhere, were devoted to a faux Judgment Day pronouncement, which Harold Camping's evangelical group managed to broadcast in 48 languages, with radio stations in South Africa, Russia, Turkey and of course the U.S. Fewer reports considered how Camping had settled on May 21, 2011 in the first place. He "developed a system," Britain's Independent determined, that use[d] mathematics to interpret prophecies hidden in [the Bible]. He [said] the world will end on 21 May, because that [would] be 722,500 days from 1 April AD 33, which he believe[d] was the day of the Crucifixion. The figure of 722,500 is important, he claimed, because you get it by multiplying three holy numbers (five, 10 and 17) together twice." Six months later, after worldwide coverage and who knows how many frightened children, Camping's doomsday ministry felt obliged to scrub the prediction from its website.

But how many evangelicals, embarrassed by Camping's pronouncement, also lost faith in the so-called "rapture" of a religious apocalypse? For years, the "Left Behind" series, with its literalist interpretation of end-time prophecies, has put evangelical authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins among America's best-selling authors, with an astonishing array of spin-off products advancing their fiction and message. The book series stems from what its authors call a "golden rule of interpretation": "When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense."

"Take every word at its primary, literal meaning," they urge, "unless the facts of the immediate context clearly indicate otherwise."

While Newsweek decided to illustrate Sullivan's recent article with a cover depicting Jesus of Nazareth cross-bound in New York City, the same magazine put LaHaye and Jenkins on a May 2004 cover with a descriptive blurb that explained, "The elites may not recognize them, but LaHaye and Jenkins are America's best-selling authors. At a time of uncertainty, they have struck a chord with novels that combine scriptural literalism with a sci-fi sensibility."

"Sci-fi sensibility" is not off the mark, but the religious apocalypse that LaHaye and Jenkins floridly describe and anxiously await is of course far from small bore, racking up sales of more than 70 million copies worldwide. Christopher Hitchens quoted a snapshot in "God Is Not Great," aptly calling it "sheer manic relish": "The blood continued to rise. Millions of birds flocked into the area and feasted on the remains ... and the wine-press was trampled outside the city, and blood came out of the winepress, up to the horse's bridles, for one thousand six hundred furlongs."

Since Isaiah, Jeremiah and especially the Book of Revelation repeatedly mention the ancient city of Babylon, for LaHaye, Jenkins -- and, presumably, many of their readers -- that can mean but one thing: "The city of New Babylon [Baghdad] will be rebuilt in Iraq in the last days as a great world political and economic center for the Antichrist's empire." Reflexive irony is alas missing at such moments. The empire in question -- to justify the costly, protracted and borderline illegal occupation of such land -- apparently did not fabricate evidence that it might soon be attacked. If there is cause for marvel here, it is surely how quickly the catastrophes of Bush-era foreign policy were quickly turned into opportunities for religious prophecy.

While Biblical literalism is a particular preoccupation among American evangelicals, as I show more fully in a recent book on this and related topics, the effect of such literalism on our politics and culture consistently skews rightward, in part because evangelicals devote most of their political energy and resources to one party, the GOP, and its outliers.

Sullivan warns about the effects of that emphasis on American politics, given the combined power of the country's evangelicals: "the crisis of Christianity is perhaps best captured in the new meaning of the word 'secular.' It once meant belief in separating the spheres of faith and politics; it now means, for many [in this country], simply atheism. The ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes."

Sullivan is far from alone among Christians in wanting reason, not faith, to guide American politics. As his frank account of the "Crisis of Christianity" implies, however, the atrophying of our national understanding of secularism (as both freedom of and from religion) has dramatic implications for the country's well-being, including, most fundamentally, its ability to separate politics from religion. Santorum's presidential aspirations may at last be fading, in short, but the issues that drove his popularity, propelling him once more into the national spotlight, have not gone away.